While it is common for bodybuilders to perform higher repetitions in the bench press, is it worth implementing in a powerlifting style program? What are the potential benefits of high rep bench press for powerlifters or other strength athletes?
What is a high-rep bench press? A high-rep bench press is a bench press that is performed with 8 or more repetitions per set. It is often used to break through a plateau, build additional muscle mass, and build work capacity back up following a peaking phase.
While there are benefits of high rep bench press for powerlifters, it will only yield the desired results if it is implemented in our training plan correctly. Otherwise, we increase the risk of overtraining, injury, and decrements in performance. In this article, we’ll discuss when to consider high rep training and how to program it effectively.
There are also benefits to incorporating high rep squats, to learn more about the benefits and how to incorporate them, check out our article on the Science-Backed Benefits of High Rep Squats.
What Is Considered A High Rep Bench Press?
While high rep is different for everyone depending on the rep range they typically train with, it is generally accepted that high reps for the bench press range from 8 reps to 20 reps.
This range is what we consider high reps for a powerlifting bench press, but could be a more normal rep range per set for a bodybuilding style bench press.
We also refer to anything above 20 reps as “ultra-high rep”, which is typically only used for muscular endurance, as opposed to strength or hypertrophy. We arent’ going to be talking about muscular endurance (reps over 20) in this article.
High Rep Bench Press: 5 Benefits
The benefits of high rep bench press are:
- It presents a new stimulus to break through a plateau
- It can result in upper body hypertrophy
- It may improve technique
- It builds work capacity
- It can combat mental fatigue from high intensities
1. Presents A New Stimulus To Break Through A Plateau
Implementing a high-rep bench press into our training program can help us break through a plateau.
When our body adapts to our current training plan, the plan is no longer as effective as it once was.
When this adaptation occurs, we often experience what we refer to as a plateau, or a stall in progress.
To break through this plateau, we can incorporate a high rep bench press to present a new stimulus for our body to adapt to, and therefore stimulate the need for growth.
You’ll know it’s time to start implementing high rep bench press into your training if you’ve been involved in a block of training where the reps have stayed consistently low for a period of 8-12 weeks and you haven’t been able to increase the bar load.
Learn more about how to kickstart bench press progress, check out our definitive guide with 9 Tips To Break Through A Bench Press Plateau.
2. Can Result In Upper Body Hypertrophy
Training with higher reps and an appropriate load can result in hypertrophy of the working muscles, which can improve our bench press performance.
The reason for this is that hypertrophy increases muscle mass and the more mass that we have, the more potential we will have to lift heavier weights.
Research shows that high reps with a lower load leads to similar amounts of hypertrophy as training with heavier loads, and that strength and hypertrophy are best developed over a variety of rep ranges.
Higher reps still contribute to hypertrophy despite being lighter loads because of the size principle, which describes the nature of motor recruitment – in which smaller motor units that produce less force are recruited first and larger motor units are recruited as necessary if the force requirement increases.
For those interested in physiology, here are a bit more details:
With high rep training, we are initially using more slow-twitch fibers that are present in smaller motor units (these muscle fibers are made for endurance, and low-force output).
As the set goes on, these slow-twitch fibers will not be able to keep up with the force requirements need for the bench press as we get tired; and therefore, we will have to recruit more fast-twitch fibers from larger motor units (these fibers have a higher-force output, and are made for short bursts of strength/power) in order to continue to push the load on the bar.
These fast-twitch fibers (that are normally only used for heavier loads/low reps) will only “kick-in” for high repetition training once we start to get fatigued and get closer to technical failure in the bench press.
This is important because these larger motor units must be activated for us to achieve hypertrophy; therefore, we want to choose a load that challenges us during high repetitions but that we can complete without complete technical failure (which would increase the risk of injury).
For the bench press, hypertrophy would occur primarily in the muscles of the chest, shoulders, and triceps because they are the prime movers (they do the most work) of the lift.
Interested in learning more about how powerlifters train for upper body hypertrophy? Check out these resources:
3. May Improve Technique
When we are doing more reps, we have the opportunity to practice our technique and become more consistent with where we touch the bar on the chest, and the path of the bar as it is pressed off the chest towards the lockout.
Doing more reps of the bench press, ultimately means more time practicing the movement – which gives us more opportunity to improve our technique.
However, it is important to note that we will be more fatigued throughout the set due to the increased number of repetitions, and therefore we must be more cognizant of our technique to prevent breakdowns in our movement patterns.
For this reason, it may not be the most effective strategy for improving technique, but technique improvements can certainly be made.
Research suggests that variations in technique are greater for beginner lifters once the fatigue from high rep bench press sets; therefore, beginners should avoid pushing to this level of fatigue when performing higher repetitions. We do not want to encourage bad technique for the sake of extra volume with these lifters.
4. It Builds Work Capacity
Performing high rep bench press can increase our work capacity by increasing the time under tension for the muscles of the bench press, which can help build more strength and endurance of muscles that may be fatiguing early as the load increases.
The prime movers of the bench press are the muscles that contribute the most to the movement; therefore, if they are fatiguing early on in the bench press, they will limit our performance.
It is normally the triceps that fatigue the fastest in the bench press because they are a smaller muscle group compared to the chest muscles.
By performing higher repetitions of the bench press, we can build up more strength and endurance of the triceps by gradually increasing the volume and/or intensity. In doing so, the triceps will be better equipped to handle the loads of a strength block, and allow us to push through fatigue at heavier weights.
Joint And Tissue Adaptations
Oftentimes, when we are diving into heavier intensities in the bench press it takes a toll on the supporting structures of the wrist, elbow, and shoulders. In order to build up strength in not only the prime movers but the stabilizing structures as well, it is worth incorporating 1 or more blocks of higher rep training with lower loads.
Higher reps have been shown to improve the resiliency of the connective tissues (tendons, ligaments) because it allows for more time under tension, without sudden overloads of the tissues that may occur at heavier loads.
Performing more repetitions also gets more nutrients to the connective tissue, which has no blood supply on its own and therefore must rely on muscle contraction to get the nutrients they need.
To build work capacity and develop overall athletic abilities, powerlifters often complete a block of training known as general physical preparedness training. To learn more about the benefits and how to include it, check out our GPP Workout For Powerlifters.
5. Can Combat Mental Fatigue From Higher Intensities
When we are consistently training heavy without adequate recovery, we can experience extreme fatigue from the physical and psychological exertion required for attempts at maximal loads.
If we continue to train at these high intensities without sufficient recovery, it can lead to overtraining and an array of symptoms to accompany it (burnout, insomnia, excessive fatigue). When this occurs, it is best to switch gears in training, and allow the fatigue to dissipate.
When this happens, it is better for the lifter to focus on higher reps and lighter loads. This allows the lifter to begin moving again without the mental fatigue that can accompany lifting heavier loads.
After a period of overtraining or excessive fatigue, it is best not to jump back into heavier loads too quickly. Our efforts are best redirected to higher repetitions at lighter loads to promote further progression without compromising longevity.
Sometimes, a deload phase is necessary if we feel excessive fatigue. Check out my other article on How Often Should Powerlifters Deload?
Should You Include High Rep Bench Press In Your Program?
You should consider including high rep bench press into your program if you have the following conditions:
1. You Are Experiencing A Bench Press Plateau
If we are experiencing a bench press plateau, we should consider including a high rep block for the bench press, to increase the time under tension in the movement in our weak points (perhaps weak off the chest, weak in the mid range, or weak at lockout).
High rep training can also present a new stimulus for the body to adapt to, to continue seeing progress and avoid stalls in progress from doing the same program over and over without any gains in progress.
Another way to break through a bench press plateau is to increase the frequency of the bench press in our training. To learn more about manipulating frequency to break through a plateau, check out our article on Bench Pressing Every Day.
2. You Are Starting A New Training Cycle
This is why we should consider starting a high rep block of training for the bench press – to switch gears, set new goals, and get excited about training again.
It is important not to spend too much of the training year at maximal loads, because there is a limit to how much time we can spend at higher intensities without decrements in performance. This is reflected by those who compete too often without sufficient time dedicated to building up capacities, whose performance suffers instead of increases.
When we’re ready to switch gears with our training after competing, we can change up our training with less specificity to encourage recovery and address weaknesses. To learn more about this, check out our article on Off-Season Powerlifting Programs.
3. You Need To Grow More Muscle Tissue To Get Stronger
If we assume equal levels of technique, the lifter with the most muscle mass will be the strongest.
The reason for this is that muscle is a contractile tissue that allows us to express force, and therefore the lifter with the most muscle will have the most potential to exert more force and lift heavier loads.
To be competitive in powerlifting (or any other strength sport), we should aim to fill out our weight class with as much muscle mass as we can.
To do this we will have to spend time actively growing muscle by training for hypertrophy (and eating in a caloric surplus). Because of the ability for high rep bench press to result in hypertrophy, it is a great idea for those looking to grow more muscle tissue.
How To Include High Rep Bench Press In A Program
To include high rep bench press in our training program, we must determine how many days a week is realistic for us to spend in the gym. The reason for this is to determine how many days we have to work with to determine the best volume and frequency for the bench press.
When incorporating higher reps with the bench press it is important to start with a lower baseline volume and intensity, and to increase these variables gradually as the training cycle goes on. Doing too much too soon can be counterproductive and lead to decrements in performance from fatigue, or injury.
We must consider our Minimum Effective Volume (the minimum amount of volume we can do to maintain fitness) and Maximal Recoverable Volume (the most volume we are able to recover from, without detriments in performance) when programming higher rep bench press, or at the very least monitor for signs of excessive fatigue to tell us if we’re doing too much too soon.
Higher rep training usually results in higher training volumes, which can be harder to recover from and therefore the frequency of high rep bench press should be controlled with at least 72 hours between sessions. However, upper body musculature does seem to recover faster than lower body musculature; therefore, the bench press could be trained with higher reps more frequently than high reps for squats.
When we are applying progressive overload to higher repetition bench press, especially if we’re performing them more than once per week, it does not take long to approach our maximum recoverable volume. For this reason, I suggest that we spend only 1 or 2 training blocks (typically 4-6 weeks/block) performing higher rep bench press.
Sample High Rep Bench Press Program
- Day 1: 3 sets of 8 @ 50% of 1RM
- Day 2: 3 sets of 10 @ 50% 1RM
- Day 1: 3 sets of 8 @ 52% of 1RM
- Day 2: 3 sets of 10 @ 52% of 1RM
- Day 1: 3 sets of 8 @ 54% of 1RM
- Day 2: 3 sets of 10 @ 54% of 1RM
- Day 1: 3 sets of 8 @ 56% of 1RM
- Day 2: 3 sets of 10 @ 56% of 1RM
- Day 1: 3 sets of 10 @ 56% of 1RM
- Day 2: 3 sets of 12 @ 56% of 1RM
- Day 1: 3 sets of 10 @ 58% of 1RM
- Day 2: 3 sets of 12 @ 58% of 1RM
Including high rep bench press in our training program has multiple benefits, but it may not be a long-term strategy. It is important to ensure we maintain good technique throughout the reps, because developing bad movement patterns is counterproductive to our success in the sport. Grinding through higher repetitions with poor technique isn’t worth getting injured, and being unable to compete when the time comes.
About The Author
Amanda Parker has a passion for competing and coaching in both powerlifting and weightlifting. She uses her knowledge from her Kinesiology Degree, CSCS, and Precision Nutrition certification to coach athletes and lifestyle clients for performance in training and nutrition. Connect with her on Instagram.